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A Brief Excursion into History

At this point, reaching far into the future requires some balancing with the past. So for a moment I will return to square one. One of the lessons from the global history of social work is that whenever the field has flourished, it has shared an idea and sometimes also a vision, such as saving the nuclear family (Satka 1995, 117–27; 144–69), to encourage the various actors to develop coherent and complementary measures and strategies toward the goal that is commonly considered as the timely ideal for good life (Payne 2005). I am using my own country as an example, because as a narrator of the Finnish history of professional social work and its predecessors, I am most knowledgeable of its societal dynamics at the birth of modern social
intervention. My aim is not to repeat my former narration, or to search for a history of the present. Instead, my wish is, with the aid of a systemic long-term historical perspective, to establish some guidelines for the possibility of a culturally transformed European social work and social action in the near future. In doing this I am well aware of getting again involved in a risky effort. The socioeconomic future is always uncertain, because it depends so much on the human factor. On the other hand, the present complexity of human lives and the deep pessimism that the recent governmental and managerial policies have raised among social workers invites new hope and a novel vision – even if it is a fuzzy one.

In my study Making Social Citizenship: Conceptual Practices from Poor Relief to Professional Social Work, I examined the creation of Finnish professional social work in the contemporary ruling relations from 1840 to 1959 and the essence of social activities during this period. I found that social intervention, from volunteers' poor relief to professional social work, often worked toward the same goal: to guarantee the obedience and morality of Finns. In other words, social workers were crucial in the construction of modern Finnish social citizenship. This was true in particular throughout the many stormy periods Finnish society faced, including the declaration of national independence in 1917 and, in the following year, the bloody civil war between the workers and the bourgeois. Throughout the periods I examined, the forms of social intervention seem to have had a close relationship with the present form of governance and the social relations of the time between the different power groups of people. Thus, social workers and their predecessors have been, and still are, actors and agents in the developing relations of ruling. Yet they are never alone. They are always in close cooperation with the other agents in civil society, the private and the public sector (i.e. education and the school system, employment services, the judiciary and more).

During the times of the first forms of social intervention, when the modern mode of societal care and control took shape, the vision of the voluntary agents emphasized the education and civilization of the ignorant mass toward the ideals of a decent male or female citizen in an early industrialized socioeconomic system. The first ideals introduced in Finland were derived from the Lutheran work ethic, followed soon by the Hegelian ideals of 19th century family ethics with a clear gender-based division of labour and care responsibilities both in the private sphere and in the emerging public sphere. Here it is worthwhile to note that the voluntary agents were all but alone in this project. In fact, they were primarily acting as various missionary groups of members of the civil society, because the public sector or the market hardly existed in the field of sociomoral intervention. This meant they were able to contribute to the common goal of creating the nation and its citizenry jointly with their contemporary colleagues in pedagogy and the Lutheran church, along with the visionary local leaders and a small educated elite, who were sometimes the most enthusiastic agents of the shared 'project' that was often related to other ongoing struggles for power and political influence.

In today's social work, it seems, the ideals for practice are increasingly drawn from the ideas of market-oriented economic governance, and from the
dysfunctional and even failed governmental or local social policies that followed. This is the challenge we face today, together with the other agents of the presently broad social field. Our academic colleagues in the social sciences have developed powerful analyses and critiques of today's welfare state models, including of recent state social policies. At the same time, however, we lack a holistic view of the ongoing mess we are in. Most importantly, and unlike the former generations of social workers in the late twentieth century or the 1960s, we lack a vision that is sufficient for the conditions of transforming social and ecological environments. This lack is crucial, because both the vision and the intellectual frame for action should be seen as acceptable and worth supporting, and not only for one profession, but for most of the experts of different societal fields, and most importantly, for clients and lay people in general.

Saying this brings my thinking back to the early functions of social workers and civil activists. They used to educate the 'ignorant' masses to achieve a better comprehension of modern life, to learn essential new skills (like the language of the new home country), democratic models for cooperation, and to establish local safety nets among equals for collective material and mental support against the unpredictable risks of life. Later, the settlement movement, and in particular the Hull House in Chicago led by Dr. Jane Addams, succeeded in institutionalizing the unique community-oriented reform work in which democratic principles when working with people were considered valuable. Much later a related mode for joint, democratic social reform together with the groups of the so-called ignorant was developed by the social pedagogue Paolo Freire (1970) in his educational work with the poor peasants of Brazil in South America.

In these cases, including in the Finnish example, the aim was for those that were seen as 'ignorant' to acquire essential and missing know-how and skills for the management of their everyday lives. Second, with the aid of the 'knowledgeable', those in need learned to discover and name reality either from their own viewpoint or from the viewpoint of their educators, as was the case in twentieth century Finland. When previously oppressed groups achieve an analytic and comprehensive understanding of their present social conditions, their personal sense of coherence and the resources to manage their lives improves. Third, in both of the American cases, the starting point was a holistic view of the person and his or her situation. The focus was never through the lens of one social problem only. Instead, it was on people's whole life situation: their social relations locally, nationally and even globally (e.g. the international peace activities by Jane Addams). Fourth, both examples became possible through numerous vain efforts and unexpected discoveries in social action, that is, through practice. This change presumed the existence of open-minded scholars who had permissive intellectual and philosophical frames, which in turn enabled the necessary freedom of thought and experimentation with novel forms of social action in the educationoriented practices with common people and like-minded academic colleagues.

For Addams (e.g. 1910) and her colleagues the main philosophical guide was obviously contemporary American pragmatism. In addition, her practical approach greatly benefitted from the application of the concrete and innovative means of
empirical social research measurements she developed to produce the missing knowledge for social action. Freire's (1970) intellectual frame was constructed by the relatively elective and unorthodox combination of existential philosophy, humanist Marxism and radical Christian theology. He took advantage of these and other ideas he found useful to serve his vision for liberating those he saw as ignorant through collective processes of consciousness-raising concerning the ruling relations and social inequality toward democratic ideas and novel modes of living together in order to avoid violence. According to both of these great reformers, participation in social life in all forms belongs to every single human being as a kind of basic right. Their vision of the future was connected to the ideal of a free citizen living in democratic social relations – for Addams in particular the citizen was a female who knows the principles of democratic action in practice, possesses a meaningful collective and individual purpose in life, and has decent material and immaterial resources for living as well as equal means to participate in social life compared to the other social groups in her society.

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